Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The authors, school board members Markus Batchelor and Ruth Wattenberg Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Most people don’t realize it, but the high schools in Wards 8 and 3—Anacostia, Ballou, and Wilson—and the elementary and middle schools that “feed” their students to these schools enroll a near-majority of all students in DCPS neighborhood schools. In the school year that just ended, there were 9,144 students enrolled in those Ward 8 schools and 9,703 in Ward 3’s. Citywide, DCPS neighborhood schools enrolled 43,389. It’s no secret that Ward 8 is the lowest-income ward and Ward 3 the highest. They are two very different communities, with divergent student and family populations. Nonetheless, and perhaps surprisingly to some, our concerns about our schools—in Wards 8 and 3, respectively, where we are the elected State Board of Education members—and for the system as a whole are quite similar.  

As board members, we have a special opportunity to meet, visit, and interact regularly with the families, teachers, principals, and staff who depend on and work in the DCPS schools across the city.

Solutions to one perceived set of problems have a way of producing a new generation of problems. So it is with our school system. As our new chancellor prepares to release his new strategic plan in the next few weeks, he faces a different set of challenges from his predecessors. And so his agenda must be distinct. We are optimistic about the leadership and ideas that Chancellor Antwan Wilson is bringing to our schools, but we have some advice.

The two chancellors who preceded Wilson inherited a school system suffering from horribly low student achievement. They were charged with taking urgent action. As they saw it, the core of the problem behind low achievement was inadequate teachers and principals—and, more broadly, a culture of low expectations where poverty was blamed for student failure. The reform agenda of these chancellors was clear: There was a laser-focus on identifying and removing inadequate teachers and principals and replacing them with better ones. The relatively lax system was tightened with a stream of mandates from the central office. Evaluation criteria emphasized test scores and adherence to particular teaching and operating approaches. For a long time, a high-quality curriculum was an afterthought.  

How successful this agenda has been is subject to debate. While average scores have risen, leading the district to be named “the fastest growing urban school district in the country,” the rise is at least partly due to gentrification: The eighth grade reading and math scores of our poorest students have hardly budged. After 10 years of aggressive education reform under mayoral control, the achievement gap between rich and poor has gotten wider and the disparities across race are largely unchanged.

Therefore, the DCPS reform agenda must change. There is consensus that successful schools—especially those with the lowest-income children—have, and depend on, strong, supportive, trusting school cultures in which staff members hold high expectations for all students; where all staff are constantly improving and encouraged to recognize, understand, and solve problems that are impeding achievement. Such schools can thrive only in districts that give them the autonomy to do what’s needed—and where data and research, good and bad, are transparent and welcome because they show whether progress is actually being made or whether improvement strategies need to be adjusted. 

Education researchers John Papay and Matthew Kraft have written that a culture of high expectations is most possible in high-poverty schools when schools provide “the necessary supports, both academic and socioemotional, to enable students to meet these rigorous standards” and when teachers could count on their schools to “provide students with the type of services and coordinated support they could not provide on their own.”   

Their conclusion: “Policymakers should focus as much attention on developing supportive work environments as they give to staffing their schools with effective teachers.”

But the last generation of solutions— constant firing and hiring, command and control management, such a tight focus on easily quantified outcomes without thoughtful consideration of the processes and steps needed to produce them, and too little appreciation for transparency and candor—has left many schools without these environments. Concerns about untrustworthy data surfaced most recently with The Washington Post’s revelation that the vaunted drop in school suspension rates is largely a result of fabricated numbers. 

It’s time for a new improvement agenda.

The canary in the classroom: teacher and principal turnover.  

The teacher turnover rate in DCPS is among the highest in the country. About 20 percent of our teachers leave the District every year, according to independent researcher Mary Levy, who presented the figures via testimony to the State Board of Education. Nationally, turnover is roughly 8-11 percent, and about 13 percent in urban districts. In 40 of D.C.’s lowest-income and lowest-achieving schools, an average 33 percent of teachers leave annually, compared to 15-20 percent who leave high-poverty schools nationwide. (At D.C.’s lowest-poverty schools, annual turnover is about 17 percent.) At Ballou High School this year, over 25 percent of teachers left before the end of the school year. At Wilson High School, about 20 percent of this year’s teachers will not return next year.  

“When teaching is in trouble, so is learning,” education researcher Andy Hargreaves has written. “Fulfilled learners don’t come out of a system of frustrated and unfulfilled teachers.”

Teacher turnover is bad for learning, for many reasons. Kids are constantly getting brand new, inexperienced teachers (not every departing teacher is replaced by a newbie, but with such constant flux, most surely are). Study after study shows that first-year teachers are the least effective, followed by second- and third-year teachers. After year three, teaching quality improves more slowly, though it continues to grow. In DCPS, nearly a quarter of first-year teachers leave after their first year and 46 percent after two years. Meaning: We are virtually assuring that a large portion of our students each year—and an even larger portion in our highest-poverty schools—will be taught by the least effective teachers.  

Moreover, new teachers do their best and improve most quickly when they’re part of a supportive, stable, professional community in their school. When turnover is this high, we can assume this culture is very weak and that these new teachers get even less support. 

The constant churn also eats up scarce resources, with lots of staff time devoted to endless rounds of recruiting, training, and orienting new staff. DCPS makes admirably large investments in teacher professional development, but if half the teachers in whom the district has invested leave after five years, that’s a lot of money down the drain. Another consideration is that veteran teachers bring connections to the school community and credibility that helps the whole school. In recent testimony to the state board, veteran Woodson High School teacher Laura Fuchs explained why behavior incidents in her classroom have “dropped to almost zero” over her years of teaching.

“In part, I have become a better teacher, honing my craft,” she said. “But there is something else at play. When students walk into my room, over half of them already know how to pronounce my name since they’ve had friends cousins, siblings, teammates, neighbors, and acquaintances who have taken my class. I have a reputation that I have built up with the kids, and I have also been able to adapt to better serve them.”

But the high turnover is also the canary in the classroom. Teachers leave schools in high numbers when they feel they can’t be successful. Some teachers point to individual school leadership as the problem. But in many cases, the trouble lies with the school district itself and the mandates from the central office that deprive school staff, administrators, and principals of needed autonomy. Teachers feel like cogs in a machine, constantly trying to decide whether to do what they think is right for their students or what they know will look good on school reports and their own evaluations. As one teacher told us, teachers are “constantly reminded of their short leash,” whether it’s about how to grade student work, how to encourage best behavior, or how to strengthen their practice. 

“The same unsupportive working environments that may motivate teachers to leave a school also constrain their ability to be effective with students,” Papay and Kraft write.    

The same might be said of principals. According to a Washington Post story, a quarter of DCPS schools have gone through three or more principals since August 2012. Which brings us to the next big challenge:  

Credit: Chancellor Antwan Wilson courtesy of DCPS

Rein in the blizzard of mandates and policies that are imposed on schools. Address unintended consequences. Give school communities more discretion and autonomy.

Teachers, parents, and administrators are exhausted by the endless blizzard of mandates and initiatives. Among the complaints we hear: a specific approach to professional development, for a specific number of minutes, regardless of a teacher’s need or the impact on other areas of the school; a system that rounds up grades, making it almost impossible for a student to fail and diminishing teacher discretion; credit recovery programs that can lead to pushing students through to graduation, regardless of what they’ve actually learned; and rules about how many students should pass a course, when students can be asked to leave a classroom for poor behavior, and how many students can be suspended.

It’s not just the mandates from the central office. It’s the unintended, perverse effects of a rigid accountability system. For example, schools and staff are judged overwhelmingly on reading and math test scores. Reading and math are fundamental, but when school quality is solely based on these subjects, the result is that schools often move to de-emphasize social studies, science, and arts. We have heard this complaint most of all in elementary schools, where there is often no dedicated time and staff for these subjects. This is counterproductive. Reading comprehension depends on background knowledge. If we don’t teach social studies and science at the lower levels, students won’t be able to comprehend their middle school and high school science and social studies textbooks. There are also middle schools and high schools where students take double doses of reading and math and, again, lose the opportunity to broaden their knowledge and ultimately their ability to comprehend the more complicated reading they will face in their careers or college.

There is logic behind every mandate—and good intentions. But taken as a whole and implemented quickly from on high, these mandates rob schools of their ability to deploy staff effectively, diminish teacher and principal discretion, and force all schools to treat problems similarly, despite differences in school needs. They take time from other priorities, contribute to teacher departures, sabotage learning, and undermine the ability of schools, teachers, and administrators to “own” and solve the issues in their schools, given their particular circumstances. 

Alongside the growing mandates, in many schools the role of the Local School Advisory Team, which is supposed to give a voice to parents and staff in budget and programming decisions, has crumbled, sometimes to the point where these groups rarely meet. 

There should of course be guidance on all of these vital issues. It’s a legitimate policy goal to reduce suspensions, move toward more common grading guidelines, and raise reading math scores. But execution matters, and understanding and addressing unintended consequences is vital. The current balance is out of whack.

Scott Goldstein, a teacher at Roosevelt and the founder of the new group EmpowerEd, testified before the State Board of Education about a culture of fear and compliance, where principals are “afraid to loosen the reins and allow innovation because they have to prove themselves to the chancellor and the chancellor to the mayor…. It’s a culture where anything, including grade inflation, under-reporting suspensions, and more happens not because of bad people—but pressure to put impressive stats on a shiny brochure for next year or the next campaign.”

These mandates and the pressure to announce successes run counter to a model of continuous improvement, in which implementation is transparently monitored and where honest feedback is valued so that snafus can be detected early and addressed. 

The system should set goals and priorities—and should provide support to schools to reach them. It should be clear about what students at all schools should be learning, through a common core curriculum. But schools, principals, and staff need more discretion and autonomy to figure out how to reach the goals. 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Recognize the huge impact of poverty and rectify it with community schools and other appropriate programs. 

It’s now common knowledge that socio-economic position and academic achievement have a close correlation. In a city that holds the unfortunate distinction of having one of the largest wealth and income gaps in the country—and the largest achievement gap between poor students and their more affluent counterparts—this correlation could not be more apparent. 

Cities around the country are realizing that the only way to effectively close gaps and raise achievement is to embrace a “whole child” approach to public education. These districts have realized that, to have strong neighborhood schools and high-achieving students, you have to help build up strong families. In districts across the country, the “community school strategy” is crucial to meeting these goals. 

Cities like New York City, Baltimore, and Oakland (a district our new chancellor recently led) are making both systemic commitments and intentional investments to ensure that neighborhood school communities serve as hubs for high-quality instruction and for the supports children and families need to break down barriers to achievement. Schools in these districts are partnering and coordinating with dozens of nonprofits, government agencies, community associations, direct service agencies, and corporations to battle chronic community issues, identified in community-inclusive needs assessments. 

At West Baltimore’s Robert Coleman Elementary School, one of the nearly 80 partnerships funded with dollars allocated by Baltimore City via the Family League of Baltimore is with a meditation nonprofit called the Holistic Life Foundation. When students have conflicts in the classroom or with each other, the school has students engage in 15-minute “mindfulness moments.” The innovative blend of meditation and yoga that the foundation developed encourages calming down, processing feelings, admitting mistakes, and restoring good faith. 

During a typical day at Robert Coleman, students use the technique at the start and end of the day, on a referred or voluntary trip to the “mindful moment room,” or spontaneously in the classroom to calm a disruptive incident in class. When we visited Robert Coleman with nearly 30 teachers, union leaders, parents, DCPS staff, and other government agency representatives in July, three students led us through a mindfulness exercise and explained how it made them “feel calmer” and how they were behaving better in class. Robert Coleman has had zero student suspensions for the last three years.

For their children to access the dozens of programs and services on offer, parents are required to volunteer at least two hours a month at their schools. 

Baltimore is beginning to see the results from these coordinated efforts. Students are happier, families are more engaged, attendance is rising, and truancy has fallen, giving students and teachers the ability to focus on what matters: achievement . Citywide, chronic neighborhood issues—hunger, mental and physical health, unemployment, and youth enrichment—are all being addressed inside school buildings and through food pantries and feeding programs, school-based health clinics, parent resource centers, out-of-school programming, and other innovative partnerships and initiatives. In fiscal year 2012, Baltimore funded 18 community schools around the city. As of fiscal year 2016, the city had tripled its number of funded community schools to 56. 

Currently, D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) funds eight community schools through an approximate $1.5 million grant program administered in three-year cycles. The schools hire community school coordinators to develop programming and partnerships that include and enrich students, families, and neighbors in the community. As a result, school climate has improved, families are engaged and healthier, neighbors are partners and—hallelujah—teachers and students are both more prepared to focus on what matters: academic achievement.

But despite the demonstrated success of these efforts when adequate resources are deployed, the growth and systemic support for the community schools strategy in the District has been anemic. Since the program began in 2012, the number of community schools has grown from just five to eight, and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget left funding for the grants stagnant. After strong advocacy from the community, the D.C. Council later earmarked a modest funding increase.

The community school strategy, with intentional investment and systemic support, has been proven to be effective here at home and around the country. If it is our priority to close the achievement gap and create a city where every family has an opportunity to succeed no matter where students start or what neighborhood they live in, we must be bolder in expanding this strategy. Across the city, principals and school staff are already trying to do the work of building partnerships and supporting families and communities—with little help from city government. D.C. Public Schools, with a chancellor who has seen firsthand what the strategy can do with the right supports, can lead the way in the years to come. 

Transparency and trust, not triumphalism. 

DCPS has launched a trove of well-intended initiatives. Typically, they’re introduced by mandate—sometimes after being piloted in a few schools—with a top-down process that often denies principals and school staff an adequate ability to say whether it’s the right thing for their schools. The message around the initiative, as so many folks have recounted to us, is to implement the program as told and show that it works.  

But not even the best mandates or programs work perfectly. All policies have unintended consequences that must be addressed. Because schools are human institutions where every teacher and student has different strengths and weaknesses and the demands on schools and their priorities are different, the problems and how best to solve them will likewise be particular to each place. Improvement is hard. Solving the problems that arise requires talking together honestly, recognizing problems and fixing them. The incentive shouldn’t be to pretend a program works. It should be to provide candid feedback and collaborate to figure out how to execute it.

To know whether something is working, look at the data, but also ask the people on the ground.  They can alert us to pitfalls and bad actors and can also tell us about effects that aren’t otherwise being considered. Every policy has unintended consequences. The best antidote is monitor a new initiative and aim for understanding—not just good news.

The widely regarded experts in this educational version of continuous improvement, sometimes called “improvement science,” are the folks at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, a “research-practice” collaboration between the Chicago Public Schools and researchers from the University of Chicago. An example of how it helped solve a key educational problem has immediate resonance here in D.C. 

As in D.C., Chicago schools were plagued with what all agreed were overly high suspension and expulsion rates. The Chicago school system directed its schools to lower their rates, much as D.C. did. As the policy required, suspension and expulsion rates fell at all schools, though, unlike here, there’s no evidence that the rates were lowered by fudging the numbers.  

But that wasn’t the end of it. The Chicago school system worked with CCSR as part of a long-term partnership to find out how the initiative was working. The collaborative, trust-infused culture was in place to enable candid discussions between researchers and school staff. And what they found was fascinating. 

Suspension and expulsion was indeed down in virtually all schools. But in some schools, both achievement and school climate ratings (whether the school is perceived as safe, supportive, and challenging) were also up. In other schools, suspension and expulsion rates were similarly down, but climate ratings had plunged—and, disastrously but not surprisingly, achievement was down too. Transparency helped everyone understand what had happened. In the schools that put effective policies in place (well-implemented restorative justice, for example), school climate marks went up along with learning. In the other schools, suspension and expulsion rates were brought down, but the behaviors that led to them weren’t addressed. The result was more classroom disruption, a decreased sense of safety, and declining student achievement. There was, as always, an unintended consequence to the well-intentioned policy.

“You focus on trying to address an educational inequity, bring the voices of the people who are most directly impacted into the conversation,” says CCSR founder Tony Bryk, who is regarded as a superhero of school research. It doesn’t mean endorsing “every idea you might hear, but it does mean in some form or other taking these voices into account. Listening is at the core of improvement.”

Programs are only as good as their implementation, and their implementation is only as good as the school culture, transparent data, and honest dialogue allow. In the case of Chicago’s suspension issue, the problem could be identified and efforts directed toward solving it. That’s what we hope for D.C. 

DCPS can be a model for the country. Our school district is large enough to matter and small enough to be a laboratory for change. But central to the ethos of a laboratory are transparency,  honesty, and understanding about what’s working and why. The current approach prevents that. And the lack of interest in understanding what works and why is part of what leads to a school culture of compliance instead of an effort to do what’s necessary to promote student learning. The chancellor didn’t create this. But it is his responsibility to recognize and fix it.

Our new chancellor has a great opportunity. We look forward to working with him on behalf of all our city’s kids.